With six working days left in the New York State legislative session, Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell has secured more sponsors than ever for his marriage equality bill, but he is still waiting for a signal from the Senate.
“We have collected a number of sponsors,” said O’Donnell. “More than we ever have in the past, more than I ever thought was possible. We are still awaiting a governor’s program bill. If he submits one, we will be able to submit those sponsors on to his bill. If not, then they will be sponsors on my bill. I am cautiously optimistic.”
According to O’Donnell, who spoke with The Advocate Tuesday, so far this year he has secured 65 sponsors for the bill, or roughly 25% more sponsors than two years ago, when the bill passed the Assembly in a bipartisan 89-52 vote before failing in the Senate. New sponsors include Assembly member Joel Miller, which brings the total number of Republican sponsors to three, or one more than in 2009. The other Republican sponsors are Janet Duprey and Teresa Sayward.
Miller hails from the Hudson Valley, an area represented in the Senate by Stephen Saland, a Republican identified by some local media surveys as undecided on the marriage equality bill. The district proximity could help, although Saland joined all Senate Republicans in voting against the bill in 2009, even though Miller voted for the bill as early as 2007, when it first passed the assembly. Saland won reelection last year with support from the Conservative Party of New York State, which has vowed to withhold endorsements from Republicans who back marriage equality.
“They never view anything in the Assembly as having any weight on the Senate,” said Thomas Doherty, a Republican consultant in New York. “Miller doing it has no bearing on Saland whatsoever. But the fact that he would sponsor it, the more people who take leadership roles on the issue, on the Republican side, whether they’re in the Assembly or the Senate, certainly helps the cause long-term.”
Compared to 2009, this year offers a more favorable political analysis for the marriage equality bill in the Senate. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who enjoys high approval ratings, has championed the issue, consistent polling indicates that majorities of voters across all regions favor the proposal, and five LGBT advocacy groups are working together in a bipartisan coalition, New Yorkers United for Marriage. In addition, since two years ago, LGBT groups have flexed their muscle at the ballot box and unseated three senators who voted against the bill and replaced them with allies.
However, as of Thursday morning, Cuomo had not yet sent a program bill, a move that seems unlikely unless he and the advocates can secure the 32 votes needed for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate. Cuomo has indicated that he and the coalition working with him feel “unanimous” in not wanting to vote on a bill that would fail again. However, other advocates, including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, have expressed a preference for holding a floor vote either way before the legislature adjourns June 20.
When O’Donnell introduced his bill last month, he appeared to break ranks with the governor and advocates, prompting public speculation about unity and strategy. He explained his action at the time as designed to generate momentum for the cause.
“I’ve been working very closely with the governor’s office on the subject,” he said Tuesday about the timing of a program bill. “I certainly think that the sooner, the better. We only have a week plus left in the session. The time is now. The issue is ripe. Let’s move.”
Should no vote occur in the Senate, the question remains whether the Assembly would act alone and vote on the marriage bill introduced by O’Donnell. The gay Manhattan lawmaker said that decision ultimately rests with Speaker Sheldon Silver, but a handful of vacancies and a thinner margin of Democratic control in the chamber would appear to offer little incentive.
“We still have the votes to pass it, but the vote margin is not what it was in 2009,” said O’Donnell. “And so if there is not any action in Senate, I would put it as not likely that the speaker would want to take that vote now when the Senate is not acting.”
A spokesperson for Speaker Silver declined to comment.
O’Donnell hopes the Senate will pass the bill this month, but he suggested that barring a guarantee of success, it might make sense to wait until next year for a vote. The important thing, he said, would be to get lawmakers on the record again before the 2012 elections.
“I do understand that people say you have to put people on record and make them make a decision. I get that,” he said. “But we function in two-year legislative cycles, and every two years we have to run for reelection. I certainly agree that in this two-year legislative cycle, an up-or-down vote has to be taken in the New York State Senate. I’m not sure that vote has to be taken this June.”
One potential obstacle in the Senate is the call for more religious exemptions issued by Greg Ball, identified as an undecided Republican. The Assembly bill passed in previous years allows that clergy members cannot be forced to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, but Ball wants protections not only for religious institutions but also for individuals and businesses in areas such as adoption and foster care services and catering halls.
“It’s a ridiculous argument. He and others around him ought to know better,” said O’Donnell.
He and other advocates argue that state law already provides religious exemptions, and the law permits same-sex couples to adopt. In 2002 lawmakers passed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity and expression, in areas including employment, housing, and public accommodations.
"There are sufficient carve-outs for religious institutions that don’t apply when they involve public accommodations,” said O’Donnell. “Obviously, if you rent out a catering hall, I am allowed to throw a party in that, whether that’s a party for my wife, my partner, or my husband. That’s what the discrimination laws are there to protect. Churches and synagogues that have private spaces that are only available for the use of their membership are not obligated to do anything. That has been the law since 2002, and we are not going back.”